Family History: Interview your Grandparents, One at a Time

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Help your Grandparents tell their Life Stories

Family history and the love of family is like holding a treasure. You want to preserve this treasure. I’m not talking about treasure which “moth and dust can corrupt.”[1] One aspect of the treasure I’m referring to is the treasure of family stories told by a grandmother or grandfather -- so that the grandmother or grandfather’s very essence comes through for posterity to hear and love all the more. Interview your mother, your father, your grandmother and your grandfather, your great aunts and great uncles -- and do not procrastinate. Help each of your loved ones share their personal history with you through an interview and transcription process.

There are professional interviewers who can help you, but really, you can do it easily yourself. It just takes a little planning and good old tenacity. Once you get going on the preparations, you will begin to feel the special excitement that comes with honoring your parents and family members. You will begin to feel the importance of recording - on audiotape, CD, video or even just with the transcribed word - some of the trials, sad events, happy moments and over-the-top joyous times experienced by your parents and grandparents. Additional information and conversations with great aunts and uncles are often important and full of clues for future genealogy research, but it is most important to start with your parents and grandparents' memoirs.

There are many books on the subject of preserving your family's stories and what kinds of questions to ask in the interview process. These books are available at your library or closest bookstore. Do keep in mind, though, the books are merely guides. Follow your own ideas for questions as you prepare for the pre-interview.

Let us Assume

Let's assume you are going to interview your grandmother first - and your grandfather at a later date. And let's assume you and your grandmother have talked about the importance of this exercise and the procedures involved. You could then set up a date and time to meet with your grandmother to have a pre-interview. This would be an informal get-together. At that meeting, ask her some questions that you plan on asking at the actual recorded interview and listen intently to her answers. Jot down a few notes and make notations of other ideas that come to you as she is talking, so that the shape and direction of the interview comes into being. You might not have time to ask your grandmother everything that day - at the pre-interview - but you will be able to gauge how much time it takes to cover some of the more important questions you want to ask her. You need to be mindful of the posterity already born and try to imagine a descendant of your grandmother reading the transcript and listening to the audio of this interview 20 or 30 years from now. Imagine the descendant needing guidance and a feeling of belonging and then finding it in this interview. These interviews can provide strength, hope, humor and insight for your posterity.


After you have asked your grandmother some of the more important questions at the pre-interview, discuss your proposed shape and breadth of the interview. You need her agreement. It is, after all, her interview. She will own the copyright. You might only have time to go over some of the questions in point form, not asking for her answers that day, but allowing your grandmother to keep them in mind for the next day. By doing this, you might also find there are questions that you think are fine to ask, but touch on sensitive subjects that your grandmother would rather not talk about. You do not want those kinds of questions coming up when you are interviewing your grandmother and the recorder is on.

On the actual day of the interview whether you and your grandmother have decided on an audio interview or a full video interview, have all the equipment set up and tested before your grandmother sits down in the armchair beside you. This kind of scene lends itself to an interview. Background music can be added later including your grandmother's choice of favorite tunes during her many years of life. But you can be creative and hold the interview anywhere, indoors or out.

The Goal

You are striving to tap the real lady, the person, the spirit, your grandmother's very essence during this interview. This should be your goal. And by accomplishing this goal, you will be able to feel confident that your grandmother's posterity will feel that connection when they listen to the words she says in the interview or when they read those same words. They will take much of what she says to heart. They will feel a special love for this woman and therefore her example and values will touch their hearts in an inexplicable way. (Actually, it is described in the Bible -- in Malachi.)

Tips On the Simple How To's

It's usually a good idea to begin the interview by introducing yourself and your grandmother, stating the date and the place you are at. Then talk about your grandmother's parents - just a sentence or two - and ask a question about them. Then do the same for your grandmother's two sets of grandparents. You will have mentioned this part of the interview to your grandmother the preceding day, so she will have had some ideas she wanted to share. Previously, when shaping the interview, you need to have decided how long you want to spend on this facet of the interview. Ten minutes, twenty minutes? You don't want to spend too long on it, but if there is some good information being shared, let it go longer. You can always edit and delete parts that don't fit well. Also, this is a good way to start an interview because it helps the person being interviewed to feel less self-conscious. Ask for names and dates and an anecdote of how each couple met and what the grooms ended up doing for a living.

Ask questions that matter to you because those questions will likely matter to your posterity, too. Do avoid questions that get a yes or no answer. Once in a while, those kinds of questions are necessary, but mostly you want to use probing questions

Next, in the correct order that you have written down, ask your Grandma the main questions you asked her yesterday. Be sure to look at her while she talks so that she can easily relate these answers to you in a natural way. If you are busy looking down at your paper and pen while your grandmother is sharing something dear to her heart with you, she will be uncomfortable and the interview will not turn out well. You will have heard some of these answers and stories the day before, but be alert and attentively helpful. Make sure there are no parts that your grandmother inadvertently skips over.

Did your grandmother ride a horse to school or did she walk for miles? Did your grandmother have dreams other than marriage when she was young? Did she honor her parents by obeying them and speaking to them with respect? There are a thousand questions you can think up, but it's your job to prepare your interview so that it takes a shape all its own and leaves the listener or viewer - years from now or tomorrow - with the honest feeling they know this great and good lady called Grandma.

Prior to this part of the process, you and your grandmother have to have decided how long of an interview you are aiming for. If you want it to be four hours long, you would break it up into interviews of two or even three days, so that your grandmother has energy and enthusiasm when she talks.

State-of-the-Art or Plain

And one more important point: You need to let your grandmother decide which kind of finished product she wants the interview to be in. It could be a video with a transcribed (typewritten) version on 8.5" x 11" paper. Alternatively, your grandmother might want only an audio recording, plus a transcribed version, but she might want the transcription to be placed in an online book which can be published with photographs and colored backgrounds. There are dozens of reputable online publishing sites where you can create a book from your materials.

Memory Press is one such site that I particularly like. Blurb is another. It can be found at blurb.com. If you create a book at Blurb, you are allowed to show several pages of it online to anyone in your family or anyone who wants to see it. Then for a reasonable price, they too can order a copy of the book which you and your grandmother create. Depending on your choices of size and layouts for the book, one book can cost between $20 to $65.

I have outlined the basic steps to a most important project for your family and I have used the example of you doing this with your grandmother. Instead, I could have spent my time explaining to you the important generational outcomes that can and probably will come of this, the feelings of really having accomplished something when you are done, and the bond you will have strengthened with your grandmother. But this part needed to come first. I hope you will decide to discover the other three outcomes yourself.


[1] The Holy Bible. Matt 6:19

Oral histories can take you back to the time and place of your loved one's memories.  Then you can transcribe the oral history if you like -- and add photographs.
Oral histories can take you back to the time and place of your loved one's memories. Then you can transcribe the oral history if you like -- and add photographs.

© 2010 Pamela Kinnaird W

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Comments 25 comments

Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 3 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

That's terrific, Homeplace Series. I'll be over to have a look.


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

Thank you for sharing a neat Hub that promotes family history and sharing family stories. I share family stories in both non-fiction and fiction venues. What a joy! ;-)


seanorjohn profile image

seanorjohn 3 years ago

Excellent advice. Young people often have as much time for their Grandparents as they do for their parents. It just takes one member of the family to start the project. My older brother got this going and we have a fascinating history of our family recorded in print. My mother wrote the opening chapter and her 8 children all contributed a chapter. One day my teenage children will hopefully update it. Voted up and extremely interesting. OK I have to settle for plain old interesting.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

ross670daw, that's great that you are going to interview your parents. There are many good books at the library with samples of questions to ask and also tips on how to keep the interview flowing. They are only sample questions which can get your mind working as you prepare a list before the interview. Mostly, it is a matter of the heart. Just follow your heart during the interview and think of what your posterity might want to learn -- as the interview unfolds and meanders this way and that. You will be able to steer it, bring it back, go in a different direction while you are obtaining priceless treasures for your posterity. The words of our mothers, fathers and forebearers strengthen us when we need it -- even decades later.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Best wishes to you on the interviews ahead.


ross670daw profile image

ross670daw 4 years ago

Excellent ideas Pamela, great hub too. I have only recently started researching about my ancestors, I've since become passionate about discovering my Family history. It's fascinating, isn't it? Unfortunately my enthusiasm came too late to interview my grandparents as they all passed away several years ago. However, I intend to take your suggestions and interview my parents, they are in their 70's now, would hate to miss that opportunity too.

Thanks again.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

That does sound good. One of my favorite books is Keeping Family Stories Alive by Vera Rosenbluth. It gives a well-rounded list of reasons these types of experiences for young people are important. Sixty or seventy years ago, the parents and grandparents would sit and talk in the evenings with the children. Bonds were stronger between the generations and respect was high. Most importantly, children felt the family circle of love and knew they were of worth. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading, Timetraveler2.


TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

TIMETRAVELER2 4 years ago

This is a wonderful hub and very well written, too. You might be interested in reading the Foxfire Books. These were written years ago by students living in Appalachia. They started as a school project but became a big hit because they consisted of kids interviewing older people to learn about "the old ways". I think you'd love them!


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

jeyaramd, thanks for your comments and concurrence.


jeyaramd profile image

jeyaramd 4 years ago from Mississauga, Ontario

Its important to have treasures of your grandparents stories. These are eternal stories that will capture hearts in years to come. As you had mentioned, it is also important that we ensure that they are aware of the means in which you will share that information - video, audio, text. Personally, I like to write things down. It makes it more universal and easily accessible. Not everyone would be their same on video or audio. If their aware of your intentions. Thanks for sharing an enlightening and superb hub. Bless you for taking the time to pay tribute to grandparents, parents, and family. Voted up and beautiful.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 5 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

KoffeeKlatch, I'm glad you were able to get some stories from an aunt and uncle. I hope that some of the stories provided some clues for further research. Research is one very good reason to do the interviews with our loved ones, but just getting to know the real 'them' if the best part, so I'm sorry to read that your grandmothers passed away while you were young. The grandmother I wrote the book about, I took most of my memories from my childhood when I was four years old and I did some free writing first. This is where you set a timer for, say, three minutes -- and write freely without censoring yourself. Write everything you can remember or heard about your grandmother(s) and words that remind you of each grandmother, feelings that come to the surface, images that come forward.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

Pamela, unfortunately I was unable to get any family history from either of my grandmothers, they passed away while I ws too young. I did manage to get a few stories from some aunt and uncle but boy, I sure wish I could have talked to my grandmothers. Also, for some reason there are very few photos.

A family book is a wonderful idea and Blurb is a great choice as a self-publisher. Greathub.


Sandralee007 profile image

Sandralee007 5 years ago from Vancouver Island,West Coast, B.C.,Canada

Pamela, Good for you, getting all this genealogy info out to people. Hubpages.com seems like the networking is really working! -Your sister- Sandralee007--a new "Hubber"!!!


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

Pcunix, that is shocking that your grandmother suddenly threw out her journals. What a loss! I can imagine you were upset.

Those anecdotes you mentioned about your grandmother, i.e. hobnobbing with the Sears people and being pursued by revolutionaries (!) would be very good to hand down in writing to your children or nieces, nephews, cousins and their descendants. Recently I just finished writing a tribute to my grandmother. It's 28 pages. I used a lot of photos from photobucket to illustrate my memories of her lilac garden, her croquet games in the back yard, her directorship days of the Calgary Stampede.... and I love it! I did it at blurb.com. I chose soft cover, so the whole thing is only $21 or so for each copy -- and blurb lets you show 15 pages of it to whoever you want via email. This way, all my grandmother's descendants can decide if they want to purchase the book. I'm sure there are other reputable online publishers like blurb (memorypress.org is very good, I've heard from people who have used it) but this is the one I chose for this time.

Thanks for reading my hub.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

I so wish that I had done that.

My maternal grandmother rode out of Costa Rica on horseback pursued by revolutionaries, hobnobbed with the Sears (of Sears, Roebuck) and was abandoned by her husband for a local postal worker!

She kept diaries her entire life and then in her nineties, threw them all out without asking any of us if we wanted them! I was shocked and very upset.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

Julie, I can understand your feelings of regret. I'm glad you do have some memories of her, though. On my dad's side, I have only memories of my grandmother when I was very young, but she was a constant in my life and I know I try to carry on little traditions she did. What blessings we have to know of the wonderful women in our lineages.

I do have recordings of my mom's mom which I'm happy about.

Thanks for reading the hub.


JulieBull profile image

JulieBull 6 years ago

Lovely article Pamela, its one of my greatest regrets that I didn't do this when I had the chance

My nana was a very special person in my life and she was so funny with so many interesting stories to tell!


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

I am so glad that you are able to hear stories from your family members about your grandmothers. I'm sorry to read that you didn't get to know them face-to-face when you were little, but at least you have the stories about them. I'm that way with one of my grandmothers. I only have very brief memories of her from when I was four years old, yet I feel like I know her because of the stories I've been told. (I'm working on a book about her these days.)

Thanks for reading my article.


billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

Beautiful story Pamela unfortunately both my grandmothers had passed before I was a baby. I used to be always wondering what they were like. I would feel sad when other kids at school were off to see their grandparents. .To this day I love to hear stories about them and bug my parents. I make sure my boys spend time with their grandparents and they love it.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

This is so important! I've written down many of our family stories.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

BJBenson and Joni Douglas, thanks, both, for dropping by to read.


Joni Douglas profile image

Joni Douglas 6 years ago

This is so true. Years ago my neighbor's daughter interviewed my grandmother for a school project. I learned more about my grandmother that day and her life growing up than I thought possible. We kept all the notes too. Great hub.


BJBenson profile image

BJBenson 6 years ago from USA

I am always trying to find out more about my family .wonderful hub.


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona Author

Onusonus, that's great. I hope it went really well.

Oceansnsunsets, I love family history and genealogy research -- as you do. Looks like there are a lot of us on here that do. Thanks for reading my hub.


oceansnsunsets profile image

oceansnsunsets 6 years ago from The Midwest, USA

Hello Pamela, I very much loved this hub, and think its an excellent idea. I love genealogy, and the studying of history in general. I found very quickly, that we need to ask questions, even of who is who in pictures... Once people pass away, a library of information goes with them so often. You are on a great track here, and I hope many people see this wonderful hub.


Onusonus profile image

Onusonus 6 years ago from washington

Wow I just did that last weekend, I brought a tape recorder to her house and later on wrote down her stories journal style.

Very good advice.

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